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Thunderbird Motor Hotel | Photo © 2020 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Thunderbird Motor Hotel

Location Class:
Built: 1959 | Abandoned: 2002
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit
The iconic Thunderbird Motor Hotel sign once located off the expressway

The Thunderbird Motor Hotel opened in 1959 in Arlington, once a growing residential and commercial suburb for the downtown business executives of Jacksonville. It wasn’t until 1969 when a major renovation of property transformed the Thunderbird into an extravagant Polynesian and American Indian-themed hotel that became host to countless stars such as The Rolling Stones, Fats Domino, Ann Sothern, and the Sammy Spear Orchestra of The Jackie Gleason Show.

The back of a postcard for the Thunderbird from the early-1970s reads, “300 Luxurious rooms, Gourmet Dining Room, 2 Lounges with Live Entertainment, Complete Convention Facilities, Only minutes from Downtown and the Gator Bowl. Location is close to everything and offers the ultimate in service.” The hotel featured conference space, two swimming pools along with poolside Tiki bars, the Zodiac Room, the Kettle Pub, and the King’s Inn Lounge.

From the 1970s to the late-2010s, the property would change hands multiple times. The Thunderbird was sold in 1973 to Red Carpet Inn with plans on building a 15-story addition located just behind the iconic Thunderbird sign. The addition was never built and within two years, three banks sued for foreclosure. In 1978, a group of investors bought the hotel with plans to construct a 13-story hotel tower which also was not built. By 1984, Thunderbird Resort Hotel filed for bankruptcy and would reopen in July 1986 as a Quality Inn. The hotel along with the rest of the neighborhood continued to decline into the 1990s as business shifted towards Southside. Shortly after its operation as a Quality Inn, the hotel became a Ramada Inn before its closure in 2002.

Thunderbird Motor Hotel | Photo © 2020 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com
A pool with just a portion filled with stagnant, brown water

In 2003, Bethelite Inc., a group affiliated with Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, bought the Thunderbird with plans to provide a “wholesome venue for conventions, retreats, proms, weddings and family reunions”. The plan never came to fruition and in 2006, the group sold the property to the church for $5.1 million. The property was sold in 2014 to a Miami-based South American development company for $1.25 million and then sold again less than a month later to Arlington Expressway Corporate Buildings LLC for nearly $1.3 million. The property changed hands once again in May 2017 when it sold to Otello LLC for $2.3 million. Again, less than a month later, it would sell again to 770 Inn and Suites LLC for $3 million.

The newest owners made plans to renovate the site to include a hotel, conference center, apartments, and retail space. The property fell into further disrepair, now surrounded by a chainlink fence dotted with “No Trespassing” signs and a haven for the homeless. In November 2019, a large fire destroyed a portion of the hotel complex.


David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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